REVIEW: Ockham’s Razor in Tess, York Theatre Royal, ends tomorrow *****

Lila Naruse’s Memory Tess in Ockham’s Razor Tess. Picture: Kie Cummings

FATE always lands jam side down in Thomas Hardy’s Tess Of The D’Urbervilles, just as it does in Shakespeare’s Romeo And Juliet.

Yet fate has even decreed that Shakespeare’s star-cross’d lovers should be performed over and over again, whereas this is the first time your reviewer has experienced Thomas Hardy’s Victorian novel on stage.

What a breathtaking, beautiful production it is too, transferring Tess’s turbulence from page to stage as a circus theatre tableau that fuses text with the physical language of dance and circus skills.

Directors Alex Harvey and Charlotte Mooney filter Hardy’s Wessex story through a feminist lens, one where the sense of loss is heightened but so too is Tess’s endurance. What’s more they give us Tess at the double, each credited as Tess D’Urberville in the programme but delineated as Narrator Tess (Hanora Kamen) and Memory Tess (Lila Naruse) in last week’s interview with CharlesHutchPress.

Hardy’s text is streamlined yet enriched in being edited to 28 pages for Kamen’s Tess, whose every line carries weight and significance, and the crushing sadness of fate playing its hand, as enacted by Naruse’s Memory Tess.

Save for one repetitive fire-and-brimstone exhalation by Joshua Frazer’s guilt-tormented Alec D’Urberville and muffled banter when assembling a wooden framework, the only voice to be heard belongs to Narrator Tess.

The rest is not so much silence as movement, movement that tells the story so movingly, and even humorously at times, such as when Tess and her fellow milk maids (Lauren Jamieson, Victoria Skillen and Shannon Kate Platt) milk cows that take the form of blown-up material to their sound of moos or swoon playfully as Nat Whittingham’s Angel Clare carries them over a river denoted by planks of wood.

The planks are moved regularly by the cast, with the magical grace of Nathan Johnston’s choreography, sometimes to create structures for climbing or balancing on a shoulder, bringing circus skills to the fore but always in thrall to the story.

Tina Bicat’s set and costume design is dazzling throughout, not only those planks, but also the use of knotted and draped material that frames the stage and turns into clothing or the frame of a horse’s for a moonlit ride by Memory Tess.

Everything works in beautiful tandem: the video designs of Daniel Denton that denote each change of scene or provide ever-changing backdrops of the changing weather and moods; the compositions and sound designs of Holly Khan that evoke the beauty of nature and emotional turmoil; the lighting design of Aideen Malone that captures the golden Wessex light.

Every performance shines, individually and collectively, in a performance that reinforces why theatre at its best is an artform like no other in stirring the human senses. Best of all is the finale, Naruse’s Memory Tess in excelsis. Poetic, heroic, Tess as you have never seen her before.

 Ockham’s Razor in Tess, York Theatre Royal, tonight and tomorrow at 7.30pm. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

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